Danai Gurira, once acting on The Goodman stage for her play “In the Continuum,” returns once again, this time as solely the playwright. Born to parents from Zimbabwe, her new work showcases that heritage. Set in late 19th century Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) amid the growing tension between British colonialism and traditional African customs, “The Convert” relays a plot surrounding Jekesai (Pascale Armand), a young African girl whose father has recently died. After a staunch African catechist, Chilford Ndlovu (LeRoy McClain), gives her a job as a maid and saves her from an arranged marriage, Jekesai becomes determined to be his protégé. Renamed Ester and dressed in “proper” British dress, she takes the lessons of Christianity to heart, which impresses Chilford but upsets her aunt, Mai Tamba (Cheryl Lynn Bruce), another maid in Chilford’s household.
Throughout the three acts, the acting remains stunning. Armand shines as a confused young girl, tortured by the conflict between her past beliefs and her newfound ones, and a fantastic supporting cast of steadfast believers of either of the two customs only enhances her work. The actors run through the living room of Chilford’s home–the only set of the play–but infuse so much passion into their work that it feels like a new place each act. To accompany the magnificent acting, I give a great deal of credit to the lighting designer, Lap Chi Chu, who has managed to create one of the best stage atmospheres seen at The Goodman this season. Steady light from above focused on the crucifix on stage sets a consistent mood early on, fitting the theme that God is always watching the characters. Through the window that leads to the fields outside the home, the light rises and fades from light orange to deep purple, setting a realistic tone for the show and providing the attention to detail characteristic of Goodman productions.
As violence against whites and “bafus”–native Africans who work on behalf of the colonists–escalates throughout the surrounding area, word of revolt spreads to the village. Soon Jekesai is forced to choose between her people and the religion she has come to believe in, the performances only become more stunning. When Jekesai’s cousin Tamba (Warner Joseph Miller) becomes involved in the revolts, Jekesai is truly left with the decision as to whether she should die a bafu. Providing extra stress on this decision, Chancellor’s fiance, Prudence (Zainab Jah), begins to question Jekesai’s fundamental beliefs by asking her to express her true opinions without using any of Chilford’s words. An interesting battle between a highly educated yet still oppressed female and one who is trying to define herself wages, with their delusional belief in their freedom of choices being their only bond.
While the pressure escalates, directorial guidance becomes more pronounced and the position of characters on stage becomes ever more important, especially when they occupy certain places of power. A particular point, a once regal chair with fading floral upholstery, has as its only occupant the owner of the house, Chilford. But as he slowly loses control over the events happening around him, the chair is taken over by his promiscuous friend and fellow bafu, Chancellor (Kevin Mambo). Later, Jekesai’s uncle (Harold Surratt), a leader of the rebellion, occupies it. Eventually it is abandoned entirely, and the last scene has the characters sitting on the floor. Director Emily Mann’s choices create an incredible production that does anything but detract from the show’s other aspects.
Both informative and exhilirating, “The Convert” takes theatergoers on a journey to colonized Africa in the 19th century. At a little less than three hours, the play can begin to feel more a history lesson than a theater production, but there is nothing fundamentally wrong with that. Modern American textbooks do not often discuss these topics, and the lessons gained from watching this are truly worth the ticket price and a few hours. Despite the heartbreaking history, this play should be seen by people of any demographic, if not for the wonderful performances, direction or story, then for the beautifully presented culture.